facing monsanto: q&a with fedco’s c.r. lawn

cr lawn copyright backtothegardenmovie org

ON THE EVE OF OPENING ARGUMENTS in Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, which will be heard tomorrow in Federal court in Manhattan and challenges the chemical giant’s patents on genetically modified seed, I asked C.R. Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds (one of 83 co-plaintiffs in the case) and an organic farmer, market gardener and seedsman for more than 30 years, to help me grasp what’s at stake, and tell me what I—what we—can do as gardeners and consumers to help. This is not an easy subject to explain simply, so besides his answers, I’ve gathered some video clips and links that may help you get better informed. At the very least: Skip to the bulleted “to-do” list near the end and DO THEM!

First a quick highlight from C.R.’s replies to get you fired up:

THE BIOTECH INDUSTRY stole a march on us in the 1980s and 1990s, came into the halls of power and received a blank check by the FDA to commercialize their technology without meaningful oversight. We have become unwitting participants in the largest human-instigated biological experiment in history, one without controls, boundaries or finite duration. No fence can be built high enough to keep out unwanted biological pollution, no geographic boundary can stop it.

And a little background: I found these two short videos from CBS News helpful, the first about the threat that transgenic (sometimes less precisely called genetically modified or GMO) seed poses to organic farmers:

The other CBS video explains Monsanto’s history of accusing farmers of patent infringement–even when the farmers didn’t knowingly use Monsanto-engineered seed. It may help clarify why this is a pre-emptive lawsuit (which C.R. Lawn will talk about in his answers below).

My Q&A With C.R. Lawn

Q. On January 31 in New York City, Fedco joins 83 co-plaintiffs when opening arguments are heard in the case against Monsanto, standing up in behalf of those who could be damaged by the spread of transgenic seeds and their potential to contaminate organic and conventional crops. As a graduate of Yale Law School and an organic farmer and market gardener and seedsman for more than 30 years, I know you have a special interest in this case on many levels. What do you want every gardener to know about this?

A. Oral arguments will be heard on Monsanto’s motion to dismiss on January 31. I understand there will also be a silent vigil outside the courtroom for those supporting plaintiffs and later in the day a People’s Assembly organized by Food Democracy Now!, OSGATA (the lead plaintiff) and Occupy Wall Street.

This case is unusual because unlike in most lawsuits, plaintiffs are not asking for monetary damages. We are instead seeking declaratory judgment that Monsanto’s patents are invalid because they lack social utility, that should we as plaintiffs be inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto’s genetics that we have not infringed Monsanto’s patents, that Monsanto’s patents are not enforceable and that Monsanto is not entitled to any remedy. In this kind of pre-emptive lawsuit, the biggest hurdle may be achieving standing to sue. For this reason defeating Monsanto’s motion to dismiss is critical. Once we achieve standing to sue, we have very strong substantive arguments in our favor.

The biotech industry stole a march on us in the 1980s and 1990s, came into the halls of power and received a blank check by the FDA to commercialize their technology without meaningful oversight. We have become unwitting participants in the largest human-instigated biological experiment in history, one without controls, boundaries or finite duration. No fence can be built high enough to keep out unwanted biological pollution, no geographic boundary can stop it. The complaint by PUBPAT [The Public Patent Foundation at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a not-for-profit legal services organization whose mission is to protect freedom in the patent system, which is handling the plaintiffs’ case] gets right to the point, beginning:

“Co-existence between transgenic and organic seed is impossible because transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed.”

It could have been even stronger as said transgenic seed contaminates and eventually overcomes all other seed. Because it multiplies at will it cannot be contained.

The biotech industry claims that transgenic food is safe and that no one has ever been harmed by eating it. This argument is entirely specious because:

1) Most testing done on transgenics has been performed by the very industry that has a vested interest in it. The few other peer-reviewed studies give one pause. So does mounting anecdotal evidence that animals, given a free choice between transgenic and non-transgenic food invariably prefer the latter.

2) Although polls overwhelmingly support labeling of transgenic foods, the biotech industry has up to now successfully resisted it. When something goes wrong, without labeling, there is no way to conduct an audit trail that could render impartial evidence as to the safety of biotech food. So that their claim becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one devoid of any meaning.

Is biotech food safe for humans? The truth is no one knows. Is the increased incidence of allergic reactions connected with transgenic foods? No one knows. Precaution might suggest that we should have had some answers before these products were allowed into commerce.

This lawsuit could restore the traditional common-law right of freedom from trespass which has been turned upside down by court decisions on biotechnology that have defended the rights of corporate trespassers without protecting those who were trespassed. Traditionally when someone or someone’s animal came on your land unwanted and damaged you, the law of trespass allowed you to take them to court. No matter if the intruders meant no harm, no matter even if science could not prove the intrusion to be harmful; it was enough that a property owner did not wish such intrusion for whatever reason.

If organic or conventional farmers do not want genetic pollution to the point where it lowers the value of their products, for whatever reasons that is sufficient to establish damages. The fundamental conservative principle of this lawsuit is that those whose new products damage others should be legally liable for their trespass and that those who are unwittingly or unwantingly trespassed upon cannot be held legally responsible when Monsanto’s transgenes invade their fields.

Q. What do you want every gardener to do? What actions can consumers take in support of a similar ethic, and in behalf of a safer future?

A. Gardeners and other consumers should:

  • Support the campaign to label genetically engineered foods. See justlabelit.org.
  • Support California’s initiative to become the first state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law.
  • Avoid purchasing transgenic foods in your supermarket, coop or health food store. The Center for Food Safety has good lists of what to avoid. [NOTE: PUBPAT “encourages the public to not buy any products made with corn, soy, sugar, canola, cotton or alfalfa unless you are certain it was made without any use of genetically modified seed. If you’re not sure, call the manufacturer and ask.”]
  • If you belong to a food coop, help them keep transgenic foods out of their store.
  • Varieties in our [Fedco] catalog have a source code. Purchase those coded 1-3 and try to avoid those coded 5, from multinational suppliers who engage in biotech.
  • Buy open-pollinated seeds instead of F-1 hybrids whenever possible.
  • Support small alternative seed companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge and don’t knowingly carry transgenic varieties.
  • Better yet, learn how to save your own seeds and start doing it!

(Photo of C.R. Lawn at top from BackToTheGardenMovie.org.)

More to Pore Over


[NOTE: This Q&A about the Monsanto trial is just part of a much longer (and lighter!) conversation I had with C.R. Later today, I’ll post his expert tips about favorite vegetables and how to grow them and how he’s adapting to a changing climate, plus a chance to win gift certificates to Fedco that I purchased to share with you.]

  1. Jennifer says:

    I don’t agree with Monsanto’s business practices, but this post is imbalanced and provides an alarmist’s view on biotechnology in agriculture. Do some research on “golden rice”.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Jennifer. Certainly an area of varying opinions, and glad to hear yours. The question of how to feed a growing planet without risking dangerous illness/reactions from transgenic hybrids that may occur is surely at the heart of things.

  2. joene says:

    Great information, Margaret. I’m posting the link to this on FB and Google+ and encourage others to do the same. The more we spread the word the better.

  3. Vicky says:

    Don’t buy any products that contain corn, soy or sugar?! Well, that wipes out at least half the supermarket right there. Well, at least the prepackaged stuff. It’s amazing to me how much of our food contains corn syrup.

  4. Carl says:

    Margaret, Thank-You for this useful information. I find it hugely disturbing that a corporation can wield such enormous power to the point that it can deny individual farmers their personal rights and ability to make a living in this country. Intimidation, threats, potential financial ruin. What’s next? The more I learn about this issue, the more concerned I become.

    The farmer’s statement in the video said, “You’re not going to know you have it until it’s too late” sounds eerily prophetic. Not only could this destroy organic farming as we know it, whatever happened to the concept of ‘Dangerous until proven safe”? You have only to Google” Agrobacterium, T-DNA transfer and GMOs” to see we could one day be facing a very uncertain (scary) future.

    Anything that has the potential to affect the health of our citizens should have been carefully and tirelessly investigated by an unbiased scientific community beforehand. There has been a bizarre illness recently in the news that some researchers feel could be connected to GMO’s. In spite of the FDA’s and Kaiser Permanente’s conclusion that Morgellon’s is only a ‘psychological’ illness, there remains enough legitimate concern within the respected scientific community to give one pause…

    1. Margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Carl. Yes, I didn’t even touch on the medical/lab studies that are starting to be reported — but I am definitely reading about it, too.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you Cathy, and nice to see you. Hoping the judge allows the case to go forward for a proper and full day in court for this matter.

  5. shira says:

    I’m curious why he recommends against using F1 hybrids? For seed saving they aren’t any good – but with the crazy summers we’ve had the last few years I don’t think I would’ve had any tomatoes (2yrs. ago) and cucumbers (last summer) if I didn’t grow at least some F1 hybrids. I just don’t know that it’s practical, if you want to grow a large variety of veg to only grow heirloom and open pollinated varieties.

  6. mel says:

    I’m re-reading Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and getting incensed all over again. I recommend it. Also the movies “Food Inc.” and “King Corn.” The big guys have an alarming amount of power to sway laws which affect every living thing… and they share pockets with our own government, who seems to support over-production so they can better control farmers and keep them beholden to handouts (subsidies). I would not be at all surprised if down the road, government organizations begin trying to outlaw seed saving in general. The messed-up ag world already regulates which seeds/output are suitable for commercial food supply. Even if people feel that Monsanto is being misrepresented, I urge everyone to do more research and be informed… and then shop for food (or grow your own) accordingly. Most of America, and elsewhere, is frighteningly uninformed about our food supply. Disconnect = ignorance = victimhood.

  7. Broken Barn Industries says:

    Margaret, great post, and an unrelated question: Are your hellebore blooming? Mine are! The earliest I’ve had them is March- crazy crazy winter this year!

  8. Lu Jasperson says:

    You shouldn’t save F1 hybrid seed because the progeny will revert to a parent not what you want. I grow all heirloom open pollinated tomatoes and have good luck. There are many bean varieties that are non hybrid and produce better than any hybrid I’ve grown. Growing food is trial and error- many factors come in to play. Weather and the effects have a major role in crop outcomes. But if you really want to getaway from the Gm factor there are ways- not easy and there is work involved. Its worth it to me for quality and health reasons.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Lu. Yes, hybrids won’t come true from seed, you are correct, and the OP ones will. Sounds like you are among the converted as far as seed-saving goes!

  9. Linda says:

    Since first learning about GMOs a few years ago, our family’s food-buying habits have drastically changed. We do everything possible to avoid GMOs. We buy from local pasturing farmers selling 100% grass-fed beef and dairy. Poultry and hogs are supplemented with organic feed. We garden (of course!) and buy what we don’t grow from local farmers. We rarely set foot in a conventional grocery, and we look for organic cotton clothing. We’ve ‘converted’ most of our extended family, and many friends, read and view everything we can get our hands on regarding GMOS, and I’ve become quite active in local and national activism where GMOs are concerned. I’m on our village’s newly-formed “Green” committee, and the issue is being raised there as well. It’s important to me to do everything I can to help folks inform themselves, while trying not to be TOO much of a pest. :)

    Vickie, actually, MORE than 1/2, I’m sorry to say.

    Shira, open-pollinated is all I grow, and I’ve never had early or late blight or any other disease problems in tomatoes. I grow lots of different varieties, grow way too many, too closely planted for good air circulation. I don’t even rotate them all that much because I don’t have a lot of places to put them without blocking sunlight on shorter crops. I don’t why I’ve never had problems with tomatoes, especially since I don’t ‘follow the rules, but mine have problem-free even when friends and family are struggling with both hybrids and heirlooms. ‘Course, just because I haven’t had issues doesn’t mean I won’t in the future.

    Before I stop this rambling comment, I do have one question. I’m confused about why Mr. Lawn says to try to avoid those coded 5, from multinational suppliers who engage in biotech. I know it’s tough out there for the non-multinational seed suppliers, and maybe I already know the answer, but why sell those seeds if you’re philosophically opposed to the practices of those multinationals? Isn’t there another way?

  10. suzanne says:

    Thanks so much for another brilliant post!

    Imbalanced? Since when does Monsanto or any other biotech ag company have a group of environmentalists or organic farmers weigh in on their latest press release, actions, etc? So then what’s wrong with presenting one person’s point of view? The other side has a LOT more money to spend on media coverage, and it does. I can still hear those “ADM – supermaket to the world” NPR spots in my head. Watch the movie The Informant! as it’s about ADM. This is a David vs Goliath situation. David would be the organic farmers in general, and the non-organic farmers being sued by Monsanto for “seed piracy”.

    About Golden Rice, the supposed cure to blindness in India due to Vitamin A deficiency?
    Vandana Shiva (wiki her if you don’t know she is) says it’s a hoax…
    You’d have to eat about 5 pounds of rice per day to get the dosage needed.

    Being alarmed is actually a very reasonable response to what’s happening with biotech in agriculture. However, being an alarmist indicates unwarranted concern for alarm. We’re not even talking about the pharmaceutical biotech plants and plants engineered to be used in making non-edible plastic-making polymers that are being grown outdoors in test fields, as opposed to secured greenhouses so that these plants don’t hybridize with nearby plants and be eaten by insects, animals and humans (which is already happening). The test sites are kept secret (due to corporate intellectual rights issues) so if you or your farm are nearby you have no idea what’s going on and can do nothing. The USDA and FDA have no legal right to do anything about it either. I saw the hearings on C-SPAN (National Academy of Science I think) and it was beyond disturbing. Mr. Lawn wasn’t at all incorrect in saying we are all part of a huge uncontrolled science experiment. It’s not good science – it’s a mess.

    The DVD The Future of Food is very good one and the extras have more info about GMO foods and understanding the science of it, as I recall.

  11. mihaela cobb says:

    Thank you so much to keep us informed! Another way to help is to keep spreading the word, everybody has to know where their food is coming from, how it is grown and what are the implications on the environment . You can’t make an educated choice if you don’t have the knowledge.

  12. Steve says:

    I just don’t understand this at all. If you have two different species of a particular genus in your garden, the bees will likely cross pollinate these and give you F1 hybrid seed. That doesn’t sound like a non-organic process to me. Why is this bad?

    Those seeds will have half of their DNA from one parent and half from another, unless or course you get a mutation or sport of the plant. Again this sound like a natural process.

    Now how is it different if a mutation takes place naturally or if it is done in a lab. The process is the same, the genetics are modified at the chromosome level in the same way. Farmers and breeders have been selecting plants and resulting seeds since the beginning of time. Restricting seeds and plants to species-only varieties that breed true from seed seems to me to be absolute nonsense. Think of all the plants we wouldn’t have without hybridization or chemically induced mutations. It’s like saying the only daylily you can have are the orange ones that grow by the roadside. This artificial purity makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  13. Doris Matthews says:

    As a school teacher, I often wonder if the increased number of children on the Autism Spectrum in our public schools has anything to do with GMO’s. In my 34 years of teaching I have seen a very alarming increase of children with learning disabilities. Of course, all the chemical companies will tell you it has nothing to do with chemicals. Something to think about for sure!

  14. Bett says:

    For an international perspective on GMO foods/seeds, check out the websites below. European countries & the UK have been very opposed to GMOs for years. Their citizens refuse to be bullied & have banned imported GMO’s into their countries from North America.

    contact cban-e-news@cban.ca to request a Canadian newsletter on intl GMO information.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Bett, for the links and the information. Yes. I have been struck as well how many other countries want nothing to do with this transgenic seed or the crops grown from it.

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